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Sex offenders in the pews: Let’s not be deceived

Making churches safer begins by understanding that deception is a sex offender's best friend.

Church Pews - courtesy of r. nial bradshaw via Flickr

One of the many horrors about child sexual abuse is the inability to definitively assess who poses a danger to our children.  Not only do decades of studies still leave us at a loss as to why offenders offend, but generations of abuse remind us that offenders are some of the most deceptive and dangerous people on the face of the earth.  This combination is deadly.  In order to help bring this horror to an end, we must acknowledge this deadly combination and help to equip our communities to understand so that all of us can be more proactive in protecting little ones from those inside and outside of our communities who want to destroy them.

I recently learned about an amazing individual who has committed his life to equipping the faith community to better understand the deceptions and dangers of offenders.  Pastor Jimmy Hinton never grew up thinking that this would be his life’s calling.  However, that all changed in 2011 when he was hit hard by a disclosure that forever changed his life. Pastor Hinton has spent the past few years collecting invaluable and unique insights into the dark mind of an offender who found himself loved and admired by an unsuspecting public that was deceived for decades.  I am so glad and grateful that Jimmy Hinton has taken the time to share just a few of those insights with us today in this guest post.  – Boz


It’s a cold February day and I’m standing on stage eyeing up my audience. It’s a seminar at a church on child sexual abuse and I’ve now shifted to speaking about prevention. I don’t want to lecture them about “red flag” behavior. I want them to experience deception. My colleague, a therapist who has logged over 9,000 hours counseling over 3,000 sex offenders in various prisons, has convinced me that we need to role play. He will play the firm church leader and I will play the pedophile. Days before, he assures me that he’s never seen anyone so naturally “get into role” as me. “It’s frightening! You’re too much,” he says. Our aim is to demonstrate to our unsuspecting audience how easily sex offenders cunningly win over the hearts of every person and gain access to children. It’s a scenario we both know too well. It will be, in his opinion, the most compelling and practical part of the entire weekend seminar. He was right.

We let them know that we were acting, but that several of them would find our routine eerily familiar. It’s a strange feeling to pretend to be the very thing you work so hard to fight against. Perhaps that’s why there is a profound shortage of specialists in this field. Nobody wants to plunge their minds into that level of darkness. Two minutes into my act, I could tell that most everyone was hooked. I improvised the entire thing. I had no idea what I was going to say or how I would say it but it just seemed to flow, and so did my tears. Several people in the audience were wiping tears from their own eyes, and we were only 3 minutes in. I used multiple layers of deception through words, pacing and leading, body language, and by hijacking and toying with their belief system. After only 5 minutes I was finished and, frankly, shocked at how easy it was. I asked the audience how many people would give me the benefit of the doubt and let me worship with them, unhindered. Every hand went up except for the church elders. One of the elders raised his hand—“We recently had a situation with a pedophile who gained our trust and eventually worked his way into a leadership position. Things got very ugly and it ended with him threatening lives. I swear, I had to take a second look and make sure that you were not actually that man standing on stage. You mirrored him exactly.” I had never met the man he spoke of, nor did I know any details about this church’s situation.

Church Pews - courtesy of r. nial bradshaw via Flickr

Church Pews – courtesy of r. nial bradshaw via Flickr

It’s a specialty I wish I didn’t need to develop, and I wish it wasn’t so personal. It’s taken its toll on me in so many ways, but I remain determined and understanding deception has become a niche. In 2011, a young adult disclosed to me, her pastor, that my own father had sexually abused her as a young child. Three days later, my mother and I were sitting in a police station reporting my childhood hero. How was this possible?   I went into ministry because of his influence. He preached for decades at the same church I’m preaching at now. We were best friends. He confessed to over 20 victims, all of them prepubescent children at the time they were abused and is now serving a life sentence. I’ve maintained close contact with my dad, as well as the families of his victims. Learning about deception is woefully painful. Living in its wake is a nightmare.

No matter how much we think we might know about child molestation, people will continue to be easily fooled. Consider the following quote from John Ziegler, who orchestrated the Today Show interview with Dottie Sandusky and Matt Lauer: “I am quite positive that Jerry Sandusky never had sex acts with a boy. He has no consciousness of guilt, Dottie Sandusky has no consciousness of guilt. She was placed at the scene of these alleged crimes by several of the key victims and the narrative of that scenario makes absolutely no sense.” Honestly, I’ve wasted too much precious time listening to John Ziegler’s naïve rationale. He makes the same mistake church leaders do when they squelch the voices of children who disclose abuse. He believes that abuse (and the abuser) must be obvious, that there has to be a smoking gun. In one interview, Mr. Ziegler is sitting in the Sandusky basement where some of the alleged abuse took place. He is sarcastically poking fun at the victims, questioning their testimony and credibility, and describing how ridiculous a theory it is that Dottie would not have heard the abuse taking place in her own home.

Yet, to my knowledge, Mr. Ziegler has not lived under the same roof as a pedophile. He has fallen into the same trap that church leaders do regularly. Good people, so it is believed, don’t have sex with children. And if they did, we would notice. And my study about deception is fueled even more by this foolishness. “Indeed,” the apostle Paul warns, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and imposters will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:12-13 ESV). Jesus was tempted not three times, but for forty days and nights! I believe that the devil looked nothing like the Grim Reaper character in the TV series The Bible. It’s this type of bad theology that keeps us naïve, and abusers know it. I believe that the devil attempted to deceive the Son of God much like he does today—by being the only friend to meet us in the loneliness of the wilderness when nobody else is walking with us. And should we resist, the devil only flees for a season: “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).

I’m learning that gaining access to children and fooling adults is more about technique than it is about addictive behaviors. Neurobiologists Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde in their book, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions, say, “We’ve given some answers as to why you (and we) are so gullible: our brains create sensory afterimages, our memories are fallible, we make predictions that can be violated, and so on. But as we reflect on the reasons, we are drawn to one that stands above all others in explaining the neurobiology of magic—the spotlight of attention.” World renowned pickpocket Apollo Robbins agrees. “In three minutes I’m going to be wearing your watch. Try to keep up,” he tells people. Within three minutes, not only is he wearing their watch, but he has successfully cleaned out every pocket without their knowing it. Robbins says that the spotlight of attention is about the size of a thumb nail. If he can steal that spotlight through many friendly techniques, he can “dance in the shadows” and get whatever he wants.

We should not be surprised that churches are a hotbed for deception and a playground for the devil. We at Church Protect routinely interact with churches who are dealing with child molesters. What’s surprising isn’t that abuse goes on in churches, but that church leaders are providing protection for the offenders rather than the children they abuse. We need to equip people to become masters at understanding deception if we are going to successfully prevent abuse in our churches. Creating boundaries is not sufficient because boundaries can easily be penetrated, and people can easily be distracted and misled. If you don’t believe me, look up Bob Arno. He literally can strip people of shirts, ties, wallets, even underwear while casually talking to them. He uses his skills to consult with police across the globe. “Bob’s training is invaluable,” says Las Vegas PD Sergeant Tim Shalhoob. “He can teach a new detective in 3 hours what would take him 5 or 6 years on the street.” The biggest challenge I face, and will continue to face, is convincing church leaders that we are all easily fooled and that “keeping an eye” on perpetrators is like telling Apollo Robbins, “You’ll never get my watch.”

Jimmy Hinton grew up in Shanksville, PA where United 93 crashed on 9/11. He is a minister at the Somerset Church of Christ and is co-founder and CEO of Church Protect, Inc.